When my sister first suggested that I write down some of my thoughts about the situation in Haiti immediately following the cataclysmic earthquake on the 12th of January, 2010, my first thought was, "It is too soon." I have no idea what I think yet, or maybe I am thinking too many things to make much sense out of them. In a way I am in emotional shock. Although I am thousands of miles away, safe in my Montana home, watching the devastation come to life on CNN and Facebook, in some ways, this disaster is happening to me. I am watching the place where I grew up, a personal piece of my past, crumble to the ground. I write this, not to make this incident about me, but rather to illustrate why I might have a more unique perspective than the average American who has to look Haiti up on a map. Wait, I mean Google. No one looks anything up on an actual map anymore.
As a child of non-denominational, medical missionaries, my brother, sister, and I grew up in Haiti. Although most of my time was spent with my family in a remote village on the north coast, I attended and graduated High School from Quisqueya Christian Academy in Port-au-Prince in 1986. When I see the images of collapsed buildings on the news it is not just scenes of random, nameless, horrific devastation, I see buildings I knew and played in. More importantly, I see images of a people that I know and it dawns on me that, perhaps, what I have to offer, is some small insight into what these people are experiencing. An emotional translation, for lack of a better term. Because, to even approach an understanding of what the Haitian people are going through requires some understanding of who these people are and how they see the world that is coming down around them and, in some cases, on their very heads.
I have spent much of the day watching posts on facebook from people who know of specific individuals trapped in buildings in Port-au-Prince, sending desperate messages over the internet to people in the States and other countries as far as Italy who are sometimes able to send other internet messages to work and rescue teams back in Haiti and direct them to victims. Sometimes all they can do is pray and weep. I see the names and the places and the pleas and I wish that there was something more I could do. I feel helpless. After a while, I know that I have to turn off the computer and the television and take a break.
Most of us attempt to understand events like these by mentally placing ourselves in the situation we see and imagining how it would feel to us, what we might think or do if we were there. Then we imagine it must be like that for the people actually experiencing the event. There is nothing wrong with this approach. It is what we call empathy and doing it is an important human skill. The thing to watch out for, however, is doing it and imagining that what you imagine must be exactly like that for the people we see. If most Americans did this with Haitians, they would severely miss the mark. If one wants to approach understanding what the Haitians are going through, one must first understand that they are a beautifully different people. The average Haitian's experience of a disaster like this is very different from the average American's.
In this variance lie many important lessons. The time I spent growing up in the United States, a country struggling with its own racism, was filled with supposed anti racism slogans encouraging me to understand that people are all the same. This was done so that I would understand that someone with different colored skin was the same as me and since I loved myself and thought I was awesome, I would love them and think them awesome too. What I managed to learn in spite of those messages, and by the grace of God, was that humans are vastly different from each other in most ways and, typically it is these differences that are of immense value and allow for beauty in humanity.
I hear and see so much about how much the Haitians need us right now and I whole heartedly agree. We have resources they do not both technologically advanced such as search/rescue and communications equipment as well as basic like medicine, food, and water. We are right to reach out. It strikes me, however, that the Haitian people have a great deal to offer us as well. The US might have equipment and technology that Haitians do not but Haitians have many lessons to teach us about how to survive disaster emotionally and socially.
The Haitian people will tend to see the cause of this disaster differently than we do. I have been hearing this earthquake referred to as an "act of God." Sometimes it seems this is meant to mean "something we cannot explain" or "something not caused by man." Some are saying that this disaster was a conscious and purposeful act of God and that it has happened as some sort of divine retribution against Haiti for "sins" they have committed as a people. I find these comments to be ignorant, disgusting, and illustrative of a conceptualization and experience of "God" very different from my own. Haitians will not attribute this earthquake to God. It will not be something terrible that God did to them. They have a far better understanding of the hardship and suffering inherent in a fallen world and God's grace in every little good that happens.
When the average American experiences a tragedy like this we see our lives come down around us. Everything changes. All of our plans and expectations come to a crashing halt. We make so many plans for our future assuming that we know just how things will be. When we come face to face with the cold hard fact that we do not, we are so very surprised. Haitians do not make this mistake. They do not say, "Tomorrow I will do this" or "next year will be this way" without adding "if God wants it." They know that they are not in ultimate control of their lives. They realize that they have choice and responsibility to act but that God is in ultimate control.
They are much less likely to ask "why is this happening to me?" Haitians do not have our sense of entitlement and expectation that it should not. We tend to look at our everyday American situation as the status quo. We easily forget that every second we are given, every dollar we are loaned, every ounce of protein we are fortunate enough to eat and every drop of water we drink is a gift, a blessing from a God who loves us. We think of our money as ours, our time as ours, our personal belongings as ours, even our lives. A Haitian is much more likely to view all of those thing as on loan from God and, therefore, to celebrate them and to share them. After all, we had no choice about how when and where we came in to this world, we will have no real choice about how when and where we leave it. What evidence is there that our lives are ours? Even most Christians admit that if Jesus Christ came to us in our living rooms tonight and asked us for our time, our money, or our lives, we would give them up graciously. I wonder if this is true. At any rate, even if we do believe that, very few of us live our lives that way. Haitians do.
Haitians are in touch with spirituality in a way most Americans are not. Spirituality is a core thing. It is at the center of humanity very close to our existence itself. The things we add to our lives tend to build up layers around us, insulating us from spirituality. Relationships, jobs, money, belongings, recreation, all of which are fine in and of themselves, even good in many ways, also serve to insulate us from spirituality. The more we have, the more likely we are to have to "find time" for spirituality, find a way to cram it into our lives like "quality time" with our children or physical exercise. Most Haitians do not have this problem, they are lean, mean, spiritual machines. Once all the insulators are stripped away, all one has left is spirituality. It is the only thing we have that can never be taken away from us. As this crisis unfolds and as we see people who had very little to begin with lose everything they had, we will see the Haitian people rely on their well developed spirituality to sustain them.
I am hearing on the television, over and over again, about the level of hardship and suffering that the Haitian people endure every day of their lives and this is certainly true. Haiti is incredibly, almost unbelievably, poor. Make no mistake, however, they do not suffer as much as you think they do. Or, perhaps better said, they do not suffer the way we would suffer if our places were reversed. Haitians have an incredible ability to find joy in almost anything. They rejoice where we complain. They think about what they have, rather than what they do not. A Haitian can sit on the dirt floor of a banana leaf hut having a bowl of rice and beans cooked over a charcoal fire after a long day of back breaking labor... and be truly happy in a way most Americans will never experience.
The Haitian people are incredibly unselfish you will see this through the crisis. Most Haitians, though they have virtually no material goods, will share anything and they will do it with a glad heart. Although there are always a small percentage of people that will be the exception, and there will be some looting and lawlessness. It will be nothing like there would be in the States if a similar disaster were to occur. I predict that we will see awesome acts of kindness, faith, and humanity from the Haitian people over the next few days and weeks. There will be less hoarding and fighting over resources than we would expect to see if we did not know the nature of the Haitian people.. We will see neighbors helping neighbors and strangers helping strangers.
I predict that we will soon begin to hear "despite their horrific circumstances" stories. That is, we will witness displays of kindness, generosity, caring, etc... that seem out of place given the disastrous circumstances. These things will seem out of place to outsiders and TV reporters but not to anyone who has had the privilege of experiencing Haiti, her wonderful people, and her beautiful mess.
For most Americans, the actual devastation will be un-comprehensible and existence virtually unbearable even to the resilient, indomitable spirit of Haiti. One would be hard pressed to point to a 50 square mile spot on this earth where such a cataclysm would be more devastating. I am hearing that the force and energy expelled into Port-au-Prince was the equivalent of "several nuclear bombs." The situation is desperate and all of us can and should help. At last report, the relatively small mission compound where ten or so of our missionary friends live in Port-au-Prince is now the indefinite home of over 2000 people. It is the only local open space. Imagine taking one block in your neighborhood and adding 2000 wounded, devastated people with little to no equipment, food, water, or toilets.
The school where I attended high school in Port-au-Prince is, miraculously, still standing. They have suspended classes indefinitely and are tuning the school into an aid station. The school staff has survived, although many have lost family members, many are injured, many have lost their houses, their businesses etc... They are not evacuating. They are staying to help their community. They have turned the school's chapel into a temporary hospital/surgery room. The basketball court where I used to practice after school has become a trauma center and the soccer field is now the temporary living area for some of the school staff and national workers. The Prekindergarten and Kindergarten playground is occupied by children from a local orphanage.
My school has set up a web site with information on how to donate much needed funds directly to this effort in Port-au-Prince. Funds sent through the special Pay Pal account on the web site will go directly to the recovery effort and not to the school's operating budget. If you are looking for a guaranteed reputable place to send some money that will go directly and immediately to aiding Haitians camping out in Port-au-Prince, please check out http://quisqueya.org/. There are also easy ways to give $10 to the American Red Cross by texting "HAITI" to 90999.
I encourage everyone to get involved. Give some of the money God has loaned to you. Give the Haitian people a chance to teach you some invaluable life lessons.
If you'd like to support earthquake relief efforts in Haiti, consider joining some of Crosswalk.com's partners in their work: Global Aid Network (GAiN) USA, Food for the Hungry, Samaritan's Purse, and World Vision.
*This article published January 21, 2010. Originally published on Mommy Life, a blog by Crosswalk.com contributing writer Barbara Curtis.